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"Football is not a matter of life and death, it is more important than that."

Bill Shankly, Liverpool Football manager

Giving the best of yourself

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Dicastery for Laity, Family and Life, Vatican City 2018

The document states its purpose as “to help the reader understand the relationship between giving our very best in sports and in living the Christian faith and every aspect of our lives” as well as “to articulate the church’s understanding of the sport phenomenon and its relationship to faith”.

It rejects any tendency to think that the Catholic church has only had a negative of sport, stating rather that “the church has had a fruitful relationship with modern sport, deciding from early in the 20th century to live in this environment, involving itself in an active and proactive way”. A tangible expression of this was John Paul II’s establishment of The Church and Sport office in 2004 to study and promote a Christian vision of sport.

The Catholic position on sport affirms the joy of participation in sport and emphasises its importance for building a more humane, peaceful and just society as well as for evangelisation. In a nice phrase “the church wants to raise her voice in the service of sport”. The booklet also refers to the role of the church to give meaning, value and prospective to the practice of sport. It is part of the church’s mission to help athletes to stay in touch with the intrinsic meaning of participation in sport.

In terms of theology of sport, the booklet states that sport is “a ludic activity” which means that “sport is not an activity in order to achieve an external purpose but has its own purpose in itself”. Making the point that sports do not have to exist, the argument goes on: “we made them up and we freely participative them because we enjoy doing so, in this sense, sports are the realm of the gratuitous”, an argument which reminds one of Lincoln Harvey’s “liturgy of contingency”.

Arguing that sport is “the joy of life, a game, a celebration”, dangers are identified in professional sport which can replace joy with an obsession with victory at any cost which can reduce athletes to merchandise, concluding that “the economic aspect must not prevail over that of sport”. Pope Francis is quoted: “It is important that sports remain a game! Only by remaining a game will it do good for the body and spirit”.

While acknowledging that Sunday sport can “diminish the sanctity of Sunday as a holy day”, the report sees a positive in the opportunity for the” celebration of Sunday not only in the liturgy but in the life of the community”.

Given the church’s involvement and support of boxing, the statement: “Sports that inevitably cause serious harm to the human body cannot be ethically justified”, may surprise some readers.

Sport has the potential to remind us that beauty is one of the ways we can encounter God.

How can the church not be interested in sport? (Pius XII)

Christianity is proposed as an added value that is able to help give fullness to the sporting experience.

What the Apostle Paul asks for the Christian community as a reflection of the body of Jesus Christ should be experienced in sport.

Sport is an activity that can and should promote the quality of human beings.

In the context of the modern world, sport is perhaps the most striking example of the unity of body and soul.

The church raises its voice when it sees human dignity and true happiness threatened.

The book is not an abstract treatise but rather includes a series of positive recommendations:

The church wishes to enter into dialogue with different sports organisations and governing bodies to advocate for the humanization of contemporary sports.

The church should also be in dialogue with those working in the fields of sports science and medicine.

The encouragement of priests to be reasonably knowledgeable about contemporary sports, to include references to sport in homilies and to seek opportunities to serve as sports chaplains locally and internationally.

The training of priests should include the pastoral care of sport and the development of relevant competencies necessary in sports chaplains or counsellors. Priests in seminaries should be encouraged to play sport.

One place where I was uncomfortable with the argument was with the regard to disability sport. The booklet states: “Elite level athletes, for example, are reminded when watching athletes with disabilities play what sport is really about”. The assumption that athletes with disabilities are not elite is inaccurate, patronising and unhelpful. In the UK, for example, elite para athletes train alongside elite non-disabled athletes and enjoy similar financial support.

Overall a welcome and helpful publication.

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